The United States is the only country with universities that participate in what amounts to commercial sports entertainment.
Why this happened in America and not elsewhere is interesting to contemplate. James Michener called it a “quirk of history.” But what is relevant for our time is the unshakable hold that big-time sports continues to have over the universities that engage in it.
For almost a century, big-time college sports has been a wildly popular but consistently problematic part of American higher education. The challenges it poses to traditional academic values have been recognized from the start, but they have grown more ominous in recent decades, as cable television has become ubiquitous, commercial opportunities have proliferated, and athletic budgets have ballooned.
The book asks two questions. Why do universities play big-time football and basketball? And: Is it good for them or not?
I set out to gather information that would shine light on the role of commercial sports and then let the facts speak for themselves. I reasoned that there was already plenty of opinion concerning big-time sports, its problems, and reform proposals. I consulted histories and analyses, used published information, and collected new, unpublished data. I tried to make it an empirical book about universities, not about sports.
The book looks at big-time college sports in four different ways: as a consumer product (and the subject of mass hysteria), as a business that many universities undertake, as a tool for building institutional support, and as an implicit component of education for the university’s students.
I conclude that the unshakable hold that big-time sports has over the universities where it exists cannot be explained by the benefits that athletic competition brings to the academic mission alone. Rather, the ingredient that gives big-time sports its remarkable staying power is quite simply support from the top: university trustees or regents want to have competitive teams.
As to the benefits and costs, the college sports enterprise is decidedly a mixed bag. The much-denounced costs are all too real, but there are also some unheralded benefits as well. In any case, it is an American phenomenon that is not going away.
“The unshakable hold that big-time sports has over the universities where it exists cannot be explained by the benefits that athletic competition brings to the academic mission alone. Rather, the ingredient that gives big-time sports its remarkable staying power is quite simply support from the top: university trustees or regents want to have competitive teams.”
Like many Americans who grew up following football and basketball, I simply took it for granted that athletic teams sponsored by universities would compete in highly publicized games and that people like me might become emotionally invested in the outcomes.
It was not until I became a faculty member that I began to think there might be anything remarkable about the phenomenon of big-time college sports. As a professor in two research universities that also operate prominent commercial sports programs, I was surprised at the attention paid to the football and basketball teams—not just by students, but also by faculty, staff and local residents. The depth of this passion and the bizarre forms it can sometimes take set the commercial sports enterprise apart from all the other activities that universities routinely pursue.
As a scholar of higher education, I was astonished at how many entire books on higher education entirely ignore big-time sports. And I must admit I have been one of the guilty parties—I have written and edited several volumes about universities with no mention of big-time sports. It’s almost as if scholars like me operate in a parallel universe where big-time sports is absent.
Some say that faculty have little incentive to ask hard questions about their own institution, and this may partly explain the reluctance to deal with commercial college sports as a serious issue of higher education. Although tenured professors aren’t usually too afraid of administrators, let alone alumni, they are apt to get icy stares from many of their fellow faculty and friends if they say uncomplimentary things about their university’s athletic department.
I suspect the better explanation is that, while scholars recognize the existence of sports, we haven’t considered it to be part of the essence of universities, so we don’t write about it. Or, perhaps we don’t consider it to be part of what the essence should be.
But when one approaches American universities without such preconceptions, there is one unmistakable conclusion: in the universities where it exists, entertainment in the form of big-time sports is a core function of the university, right up there with research, teaching, and service.
So, in the book, I tried to imagine how I might explain to a visitor from another country what role big-time sports plays in a research university.
In doing the research, I have come to believe that the tailgating rituals, painted faces, and screaming fans associated with big-time sports are parts of American universities as surely as physics labs and seminars on Milton. In large part because of its heavy television coverage, big-time sports has become by far the most visible part of many American universities.
Because my approach was agnostically empirical, the book ended up packed with information not previously known or associated with universities.
Here are a few examples.
I addressed a question that has been written about but never really analyzed: how does a media event like the NCAA tournament affect patterns of work? I was able to obtain permission from 78 research libraries to access data from an on-line repository of academic journals on the number of articles viewed every day for 90 days straight in three successive years. That analysis showed that work drops in the days after “Selection Sunday,” when many people are filling out their brackets; that those whose teams are in the tournament do less work; and that those whose teams win unexpectedly experience a precipitous, but short-term, drop in the work they do.
Another finding relates to the much-ballyhooed rise in coaches’ salaries. I found that these salaries are worth the attention because they have been growing at a phenomenal rate. Between 1986 and 2010, a period when the average pay for full professors at 44 public universities increased by 32% after inflation, and that of the presidents increased by 90%, pay for the head football coaches at those same institutions increased six and a half times, or about 650%.
There are many other indications that the world of big-time sports is wholly separate from the academic sides of many of our great universities.
At the University of Texas, for example, the football team rides to practice every day during the season aboard chartered buses and dresses out in a locker room equipped with five flat-screen TVs and adorned with a 20-foot ceiling light in the shape of a longhorn.
Though it might be a business enterprise for the universities, big-time sports is a source of sincere devotion for many ordinary Americans.
In Alabama, the state’s two biggest sports universities are the object of attention from the governor on down. By tradition, the home team in the annual Auburn-Alabama football game offers two free tickets to every member of the Alabama legislature; the state’s governor traditionally received two dozen tickets to every Auburn and Alabama home game. In 2010 Auburn drew an impressive crowd of 63,000 for to its annual scrimmage game, and Alabama had an astonishing 91,000. And numerous obituaries appearing in newspapers like the Birmingham News contain references to people’s lifelong devotion to a team. One among the many that appeared in 2010 stated, “He was a man of faith who loved his family, his church, his community and the Alabama Crimson Tide.”
“Our universities are not solely academic institutions. In a real sense, they are in the entertainment business.”
As unlikely as it might sound at first, big-time sports provides an illuminating vantage point from which to assess the purpose of many American universities.
At the outset, I rather expected to find in the big-time college athletic department an organization that is highly commercial and wholly unrelated to the main purposes of the university. Commercial it is, but unrelated it is not. Our universities are not solely academic institutions. In a real sense, they are in the entertainment business.
For these universities, being competitive in intercollegiate sports has the look and feel of a core mission. For the flagship and land-grant public universities in particular, big-time college sports long ago became part of the cultural extension of the university throughout their states. It has become the populist face of these universities. Reflecting the importance that citizens and alumni place on athletic success, trustees and boards of governors insist that their universities do what is necessary to have competitive teams.
Big-time sports holds the potential for real benefit to the academic enterprise. Although most athletic departments fail to earn enough to cover the cost of all their university’s teams, the evidence suggests that successful big-time programs help to attract applicants, stimulate charitable contributions, and bolster support from the community and state.
Beyond the campus walls, the same devotion that makes college sports commercially valuable also represents an authentic but unheralded social benefit: the sheer enjoyment and pride that citizen-fans feel. Economists call it “consumer surplus,” but the everyday term is “happiness.”
Another social benefit of big-time college sports is its potential to teach by example civic values like meritocracy and productive interracial cooperation. One of the forces that opposed many Southerners’ fierce embrace of segregation was another cherished tradition: college football. Coaches who treated their players equally and interracial teams that worked together provided much-needed models for the region and the country. This teaching by example continues today, as racially diverse college teams play together with a harmony shown in high fives and fist bumps.
None of this is to deny that big-time sports creates troubling conflicts in values and tempts universities to be less than candid about the compromises made in the pursuit of competitive teams. But faculty members and administrators do a disservice to themselves and their institutions by pretending that the sports-entertainment complex is no more significant to a university’s functioning than are its dining halls or drama clubs.
It would be healthier for American higher education to come to terms with its deep commitment to entertainment in the form of big-time sports. The ongoing debate over “what is to be done about college sports?” could then be more realistic and possibly more effective.
Charles Clotfelter is professor of public policy and professor of economics and law at Duke University and a research associate in the National Bureau of Economic Research. Among his previous books are After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation (2004), Buying the Best: Cost Escalation in Elite Higher Education (1996), and (with Philip Cook) Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America (1989). He is also editor of American Universities in a Global Market (2010). While at Duke, Clotfelter has served as Vice Provost for Academic Policy and Planning, Vice Chancellor, and Vice Provost for Academic Programs., Way is the author of numerous books, including Everyday Courage: The Lives and Stories of Urban Teenagers.